Agenda Setting: How social media empowers opinion leaders and influences voters

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Comparing how the Presidential candidates are using new media this year, the 2008 race looks like the social media stone age. Back then Myspace was still the largest social network, Facebook was considered a mainstay for mostly students, and the most followed account on Twitter was then candidate Barack Obama. That campaign was noted for it’s pioneering use of new media, at a time when few politicians had social media profiles, but the benefits were immediately understood and adopted by nearly every campaign since 2008.

I was lucky to have a front row seat to the communications changes taking place that year, both as one of the early adopters of Twitter (when the site had only a million users) and as a graduate student in DC studying public communications.  That fall I was enrolled in Matthew Nisbet‘s course in Communication Theory, learning all about agenda setting by the newsmedia and the role of opinion leaders in swaying public opinion.  The 2008 elections proved a great working example to apply the theories I was learning.

Pulling together what I was learning about communications theory with my own experiences using social media (especially blogs) and observing its growing influence on politics, I wrote a report explaining the role of new media on agenda setting and opinion leadership.  My review of relevant research showed that many bloggers had an active interest in shaping policy agendas, and that both journalists and young americans were increasingly reliant on blogs and online news as their main source for political information.  Further research revealed that social media would change the spread of information by opinion leaders, building on real-life social networks and two-step flow of information that academics had observed as a key to influence over political opinion.

Download my 2008 report on the growing influence of bloggers on political communications here.

By using this academic understanding of communications, it was easy for me to anticipate the growing influence of social media on politics, even as most of the research had only begun to demonstrate the impact of blogs.  It seems obvious now, but back in 2008 many still thought social media was a fad and most were only beginning to understand the growing role of bloggers in the news cycle.  YouTube had only recently made its initial splash into politics, exposing hypocrisy in hidden camera videos during the run-up to the 2006 mid-term elections; in 2012 another hidden camera video (of candidate Mitt Romney) made an impact on public opinion. Already in the 2010 election cycle we saw the growing impact of social media; a case study I worked on demonstrated some correlation between online discussion and elections – in 3 out of 4 contests the candidate most mentioned in social media was also the winner in their election.

In 2012 the media landscape has transformed again, and political campaigns embracing new media like never before- instant news and reactions on Twitter, virtual town halls on Reddit, and even smartphone apps for candidates – but the fundamentals of how news is made and shared remain consistent.  Blogs continue to play a key role in agenda setting, and Twitter has evolved into an important echo chamber for sharing news (and occassionally misinformation and memes), just as email and message boards had in prior elections researched in my report.  As the media used to spread news and promote ideas evolves, it becomes even more important to understand the theories behind communications and interpersonal influence.  And as the candidates turn from influencing political opinion to mobilizing voters on election day, not to mention engaging with citizens after elections, they’ll again turn to social media to reach the public.

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Full disclosure: I’m a supporter of President Obama’s re-election campaign, and worked for Democratic candidates in 2008 by volunteering on a Gubernatorial campaign. My current job involves working with reporters and bloggers, so my own ideas about the news media draws from those experiences.